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What’s really wrong with relativism?

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

Over in the comments on GT 2006-04-09: Freedom Movement Celebrity Deathmatch, Jeremy (of Social Memory Complex) asks the following question, referring back to an exchange I had with Lady Aster (1, 2), and an exchange that Jeremy and I had at his blog (1 et seq.):

In your reply to Aster you spoke of the danger of relativism. Is it possible for you to expand on this concept? Can you be more descriptive and perhaps specific about the danger you see in a relativist view of the morality? Or perhaps you have written about this elsewhere and can direct me to your existing writing. I only ask because we've recently discussed this and I'm interested in your argument here.

I initially posted this reply as a very long comment; after thinking about it, I decided that it would be of general enough interest, even though it’s a fairly sketchy overview, to make it a post of its own.

Jeremy, I think that the best reply partly depends on what sort of dangers you’re interested in.

I have philosophical reasons for believing that moral relativism is theoretically flawed. If relativism is intended to be a description of the logic behind people’s actual use of moral terms, then it’s not an accurate description; it’s not really a theory of morality at all, but rather a theory of something else — etiquette, taste, or, in its crudest forms, conventional wisdom or personal pleasure. If, on the other hand, it’s intended to be a normative theory about the criteria that people ought to use in making certain kinds of judgments — by, say, abandoning the morality-game’s requirements for certain kinds of consistency across differences of culture or personal psychology, and adopting some other, relativistic set of requirements — then I think that that theory is undermotivated, false, and, at least in most versions, logically incoherent. If it’s intended as a meta-ethical theory, which takes for granted the rules of the morality-game as they are, and doesn’t specifically counsel abandoning those rules, but which claims that those rules either don’t express factual claims at all, or else express factual claims that presuppose something false, then what you’ve got is not really relativism exactly, but either non-cognitivism or an error theory (respectively). I have my own logical and philosophical problems with each of those, which we can discuss at more length if you want.

I also have reasons for thinking that relativism is a moral danger, in the sense that I believe that, under many circumstances, indulging in relativistic argument is in fact a moral vice, and that it tends to encourage other kinds of moral vice. Basically because on any form of relativism (cultural relativism, agent relativism, speaker relativism, etc.) you necessarily, in order to remain a relativist, must fail to hold some people to moral standards that it’s appropriate to hold them to, and to hold some other people to moral standards that it’s inappropriate to hold them to. It amounts to either excuse-making or bigotry, depending on the case. (For example, consider the very common, implicitly culturally-relativist claim that contemporary writers shouldn’t judge George Washington harshly for enslaving hundreds of his fellow human beings if most of his contemporaries, or at least most of the minority faction of his contemporaries whose opinions he cared about — the white and propertied ones — believed that slavery was O.K. and if Washington’s methods weren’t especially harsh by their standards. I don’t think there is any possible way to make this kind of claim without, thereby, expressing a really massive callousness toward the well-being, dignity, and rights of the hundreds of people that George Washington enslaved. Not only do I regard it as being philosophically mistaken, but the callousness itself is wrong. And if you live the kind of life that that kind of immorality accords with, well, that’s a problem with your life, not a problem with morality.)

I also have reasons for thinking that libertarians should regard relativism in general, and relativism about the duty to respect other people’s rights in particular, as a political danger. If justice is thought of as something that’s less than universally and categorically binding, which individual people or cultures of people can take or leave as it pleases them, then I don’t think it is very surprising that what will soon follow is a whole host of reasons or excuses for leaving it in favor of some putative benefit to be got through coercion. Politically speaking, I’m not just interested in theories which proclaim my reasons for not beating, burning, and bombing innocent people; I wouldn’t do that anyway, and just about nobody would support me or make excuses on my behalf if I did. I’m much more concerned with theories which proclaim George W. Bush’s or Dick Cheney’s reasons for not beating, burning, and bombing innocent people, because the problem in this case is precisely those who don’t believe that they have any personal reason not to do that.

Of course, I could instead adopt a moral theory on which it’s O.K. for them to act like that, but also O.K. for me to try to resist them, and a sociological theory which predicts that if I stick to my values and they convert to similar values, it’ll lead to a better outcome for the both of us than if we each stick to our values, or if I convert to Bush’s and Cheney’s. (Maybe that’s what Max Stirner believed.)

But, again, in addition to the theoretical and the moral problems that I’ve already mentioned, I also think that this kind of theory is unlikely to get you much political traction, because it underplays your dialectical hand. (I think that binding moral claims are really much stronger, rhetorically and dialectically, than most people seem to believe they are. Lots of people very often rule out a stark moral arguments–say against slavery, or imprisoning nonviolent drug users, or forced pregnancy, or the war on Iraq–in favor of some much more complicated technical argument, or a pseudo-conciliatory hand-wringing argument, because they dismiss the moral argument as somehow impractical, even though it would be perfectly convincing to them, and even though they would find complicated or hand-wringing argument confusing, unfocused, or worse, if they were the ones listening to the argument. The problem in these cases is often not with the moral argument but rather with the arguer underestimating her audience.) I also think that these kind of approaches very often involve a mistake about the best target for your argument; sometimes it makes sense to try to persuade aggressors to stop being aggressive by argument, but it’s much more often the case that the smarter goal would be to try to convince other victims of aggression to resist, or at least stop collaborating with, the aggressor, and stark moral arguments against the legitimacy of the aggression are very often going to be the most effective way to inspire comrades and shame collaborators.

But, setting aside political strategy, I think the most important reasons are the moral and logical ones. The fact that relativism and relativistic arguments are dangerous to the political prospects for liberty, if that is a fact, is just a secondary reason to more strongly dislike it. The primary reason to oppose it is that the position is false, the arguments are fallacious, and the vision of human life and moral discourse that it presents — one in which people are just so many bigots and partisans, divided in our basically irreconcilable values by personal temperament or, worse, cultural or parochial loyalties, whose normative discourse consists of battering their own preferences against other people, to whom those preferences are ultimately alien, in the hope that their opponents will eventually be remade in their own image and their own preferences will triumph, through means explicitly other than rational conviction, which of course has been ruled out from the get-go by the relativist premise — is a narrow and mean and miserable thing compared to the vision on which we are, each of us, fellow citizens of a cosmopolis of all rational creatures, open to each other’s reasons and concerns, and in both amenable to, and hopefully guided by, reason, when it comes to the things that are most important to each of our individual lives. The highest form of flourishing is one in which I neither regard myself as made for the use of others, nor regard others as made for my own use, but rather see my taste and idiosyncratic projects, other people’s taste and idiosyncratic projects, and the common tastes and projects which we may agree to cultivate cooperatively, as all existing within the scope of shared and universally intelligible norms of respect, consent, humanity, and rational discourse. Relativism often advances itself as if it promoted that form of flourishing, under the veneer of a phony tolerance, but in fact to the extent that it attacks the sharedness and universal intelligibility of those norms, it is attacking that form of flourishing, and attempting to claim that tolerance means my right to make you tolerate whatever I want you to (or vice versa), since (after all) the relativistic version of tolerance can in principle include tolerance of absolutely any value, including values for coercion, aggression, parasitism, and sadism.

I should note before I conclude that I don’t think that the argument of Aster’s which I was originally responding to is at all guilty of relativism. I think that’s a danger implicit in the kind of language she recommends, but there are other, related dangers of authoritarianism which are implicit in the kind of language that she criticizes; whichever kind of language you choose, there’s dialectical work to be done in making clear what you want to make clear while avoiding the error that the language might suggest in careless hands. And if she does at some point fall into a relativistic error about the status of rights — which as far as I know she doesn’t, and which I certainly don’t mean to attribute to her –then I’m quite certain, based on what she’s written here and elsewhere, that it’s not for some of the reasons (e.g. underestimating her audience or confusion about the appropriate audience) that I discuss here. I think all forms of relativism involve at least some of these confusions, but only some forms involve all of them.

Anyway, I hope this helps somewhat in explaining, but I think that I probably haven’t covered what you wanted me to cover in the detail that you wanted. But I think there are a lot of different points to cover, and to cover any given point more deeply and more illustratively, I’d need to know a bit more about what specific kind of dangers, and in what context of discourse, you’re interested in my views on. A conversation that I’d be happy to have in comments, for those that are interested.

Further reading:

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  1. quasibill

    This is, to me, a very difficult subject to speak of precisely, which may be what this whole discussion really boils down to. For example:

    “If justice is thought of as something that’s less than universally and categorically binding, which individual people or cultures of people can take or leave as it pleases them, then I don’t think it is very surprising that what will soon follow is a whole host of reasons or excuses for leaving it in favor of some putative benefit to be got through coercion.”

    This whole statement pivots on the definition of “justice” that is used. I personally would argue that, taken in isolation from other circumstances, it was unjust for the New England Cod industry to profit so handsomely from selling defective cod to the Carribean plantation owners, because they were profiting indirectly from exploitation. However, if I were using justice as it appears you were using it in that statement, I would say it was just, as the New Englanders were not engaging in rights violations themselves. Perhaps there is justice(1), which involves the concept of justified coercion, and justice(2) which involves more subjective valuations and is therefore necessarily more relativistic than justice(1)?

    It seems to me that while there are some (perhaps as few as one) objective moral principles, the chain of deductive reasoning starts to include subjective value judgments more and more as you travel down the chain, and that, where the rubber hits the road (so to speak), there are always subjective elements involved in applying abstract principles of justice.

    So while I don’t consider myself a moral relativist, many people (perhaps you?) would. I’m okay with pretty much (so long as its reasoning is transparent) any moral system that begins with a version of the principle “you have no right to use another person merely as means to your own ends” (which I think is pretty much self-ownership without smuggling the concept of property into the discussion). Of course, as noted at the beginning, I’m sure that we could duel over the precision of the terms involved, but I’m fairly comfortable with my understanding and ability to communicate what I mean those words to convey.

  2. Rad Geek


    Well, the good news is that, at least based on what you say here, I wouldn’t conclude that you’re a relativist.

    I agree with you that there are broader and narrower meanings for the term justice, one of which I think has to do strictly with individual rights (i.e. legitimately enforceable claims), and the other of which has to do with some broader sense of respect and fair play. And there may be plenty of things that are unjust in the broader sense without being unjust in the narrower sense (thus, vicious, but not criminal). I’d need to think more about the specific case that you mention to decide for sure whether it is a case of that, but it probably is; I think that most of that sort of profiteering off of aggression is exploitative but not aggressive in itself. (It depends on the degree of ongoing conspiracy, if any, between the profiteer and the primary aggressor, and whether the profiteer’s actions directly create any new and distinct torts against the victim.)

    I’d need to hear more about how you would spell out the details, but at first blush I wouldn’t say that you’ve said anything relativistic, at least not yet. It is perfectly possible for there to be morally binding judgments that incorporate subjective value (in the economic sense), without the aptness of those judgments thereby becoming relative to a frame of reference.

    For example, consider the principle of restorative justice that if you deprive me of something I have a right to through force or fraud, then, ceteris paribus, you owe me compensation of equivalent value to what I was deprived of. But then, of course, the question is, in what sense of value does the compensation needs to be equivalent? One possible answer is subjective value in the economic sense; i.e., that what the victim is owed is (again, ceteris paribus) fixed by how much she valued what she lost.

    Set aside for the moment whether this principle is true. (I think it is, but only because the ceteris paribus clause is waving away a lot of important countervailing considerations and epicycles on the theory.) What I want to focus on is whether, if true this principle of justice, or the judgments that issue from it, would imply relativism about at least some parts of justice. I don’t think that it would. Here’s why: the principle incorporates the notion of subjective value, and the judgments that issue from it — e.g., Ceteris paribus, Smith owes Jones $30,000 for as compensation for destroying Jones’s car, which she would have been willing to sell for $30,000 but not less… — incorporate specific subjective values into the judgment, those subjective values have a fixed reference point, and go towards fixing the content of the judgment.

    For the judgment to be an instance of moral relativism, it would have to be the case that both of the following statements might be true (and both might be false) at the same time, depending on the context of utterance or the identity or associations of one or more of the parties involved:

    1. Ceteris paribus, Smith owes Jones $30,000 for as compensation for destroying Jones’s car, which she would have been willing to sell for $30,000 but not less….

    2. Ceteris paribus, Smith does not owe Jones $30,000 for as compensation for destroying Jones’s car, which she would have been willing to sell for $30,000 but not less….

    As far as I can tell, your theory doesn’t allow for that to be the case, or if it does, you haven’t yet introduced the elements that would make it so. Thus far, at least, while the content of the judgments depends on one person’s subjective value, the truth-values of the judgments, once their content is fixed, don’t vary from speaker to speaker, or from culture to culture, or from agent to agent; as long as the victim attaches that subjective value to that car, the judgment will be true (if the principle it derives from is true), no matter who utters it, or in what context it was uttered, no matter who the victim is, no matter who smashed the car, and no matter what culture they all come from. Thus, the aptness of the judgment is a matter of independent fact, not relative to the frame of reference.

    Besides subjective value, there is also a separate issue, which you seem to touch on briefly, which has to do with the role of convention, idiosyncratic judgment, and perhaps even arbitrary fiat, in applying certain principles of justice to concrete cases, or what I’ve elsewhere talked about as reducing the natural law). If you mean to point out that there is such a role, I agree with you, but again, I don’t think it implies any form of relativism about justice, at least not in any sense that I object to. In cases where convention (for example) has to be taken into account to apply principles of justice, it’s because the concrete judgment in question isn’t strictly entailed by principles of justice, except in a conditional form. E.g.: you should follow the rules of the road, whatever they are entails you should drive on the right side of the road, if you are driving in a society where the convention is to drive on the right side; it’s only when combined with the fact that the U.S. indeed has this convention that you get you should drive on the right side of the road in the U.S. You could say that there’s a sense in which you should drive on the right side of the road and you should drive on the left side of the road are judgments of respect for others rights which are relative to the culture in which you’re driving; but if so, the reason they are thus relative is only that you’ve started out by under-specifying the content of the judgment. If they’re intended as universal statements about rules of the road, then both of those principles would be false; if, on the other hand, they’re intended as elliptical statements (say, When driving in the U.S., you should drive on the right side of the road, and When driving in the U.S., you should drive on the left side of the road, then one of them is true and the other one is false, no matter who utters them or in what context.) The content of justice per se remains publicly accessible and non-relativistic; and the specific judgments of justice become relativistic only to the extent that you under-specify the full content of the judgment. A robust form of relativism, in the technical usage of the term, would require that the judgments and the principles they are based on be relative all the way down, even when their content is fully specified. So, for a cultural relativist, it’s not only that You ought to drive on the right side of the road might be true in New York but false in London. It’s that When you are in New York, you should drive on the right side of the road might be true for a New Yorker but false for a Londoner, and also that the general principle from which it derives, You ought to follow the rules of the road, whatever they may be might be true for a New Yorker but false for a Londoner, or true for me but false for you. (Actually, based on the driving of people around here, I think that this form of relativism might be a pretty popular belief in Las Vegas. But no less disreputable for being so common.)

    Does that clarify or muddify?

  3. quasibill

    At this point, I think it clarifies, but since I’ve misconstrued some of your statements in the past, I’m going to have sit down and mull your post over for a while.

    I really enjoyed your back and forth with Jeremy at his blog. I think I’ve learned a fair amount from following it, and I think I agree with what you’ve written. I think I need to spend some more time figuring out what exactly the term “moral relativism” entails, as perhaps this definition is the source of my confusion.

  4. smallylerned

    Is it terribly unsophisticated of me to reason “drowning babies for fun is always wrong, therefore moral relativism is false”?

  5. Rad Geek


    Well, I’ve got no problem with your reasoning. Indeed, that’s basically just an application of the same kind of Moorean argument that I use against Ted Honderich and against Max Borders. (Honderich’s argument isn’t a relativistic argument; it’s objectionable for other reasons. Borders’s argument is an agent-relativistic argument, tricked out with some explicitly Hobbesian social contract apparatus.)

    To be sure, a moral relativist is unlikely to be convinced by your argument, and they are likely to claim oen of two things. (1) She may claim that someone with a proper understanding of relativism can translate what you mean when you say drowning babies for fun is always wrong into relativist-speak. (What you’re really saying is that you oppose it no matter who does it or why. That’s fine! But any speaker-relativist can accept that without ceasing to be a relativist…) Or (2) she may claim that you’re just begging the question against the relativist. In either case, the relativist is likely to denounce you as unsophisticated. But I think that’s the relativist’s problem, not yours, and it’s a funny form of sophistication that expresses itself in spinning out some jargon-laden, intellectualized excuses for why it can be be right and wrong at the same time to drown babies for fun, depending on one’s frame of reference.

  6. Jeremy


    I’ve been waiting until I’ve had a chance to really digest your enormously generous answer to my question. I’m afraid I’ve been so busy with what keeps food on the table that I haven’t thought through everything you mention. And this is very dense stuff for me – the internet has given me A.D.D. I do appreciate your attention to precision and believe I have much to learn from it.

  7. smallylerned

    I guess I would be begging the question against a relativist. But this makes me wonder about question-beggingness. It seems to me that any statement of a “plain truth” would beg the question against a sophist. I had thought of question-beggingness as a formal feature of an argument, but is it really a feature of dialogue rather than argument?

  8. Rad Geek


    I don’t think that your argument would beg the question against a relativist. I think it’s a perfectly cogent argument, and one of a form that I at least am happy to use.

    A relativist would almost certainly accuse you of begging the question, but in my view the accusation would be unfounded. As I argue in my reply to Honderich, there just are no non-question-begging arguments against certain kinds of plain (Moorean) truths, and I’d count moral truths like the one you mentioned among those plain truths.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think that question-beggingness is a formal feature of an argument. But I’m not sure what you mean by it being a feature of dialogue rather than argument. What I would say is that, unlike most of the logical fallacies, an accusation of question-begging has to do with substantive epistemic features of your premises, rather than with any features of the formal inferential connection between your premises and your conclusion. In a formally fallacious argument, the conclusion can’t actually be inferred from the premises, even though a careless presentation of the argument may make it seem as if they do; but in a question-begging argument, the conclusion may very well follow from the premises. Many question-begging arguments are even deductively valid. The problem with them is that the premises fail to give reasons for the conclusion, not because the inferential link fails, but rather because the premises are really no more initially plausible than the conclusion.

— 2009 —

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  2. Francois Tremblay

    Rad Geek: you would probably call me a relativist, but I think your objections are very unsophisticated (yea, I’m walking right into that one aren’t I). The fact that one believes that no value system is superior to any other does not mean that we must “batter our preferences” against each other and ultimately a war of all against all. That’s the statist, democratic view of relativism. The much saner view is that we have different value systems, we can’t judge one against the other, so let’s just agree to disagree. It also does not mean that we must “tolerate” everything, including people who drown babies for fun. Murder goes against the innate moral sense that all humans are born with (see Spooner for more explanation), and thus is considered a universal evil regardless of the society we live in.

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